Marginal to Mainstream
The Foodways Project is a grassroots effort to undo racism and other forms of oppression through food-focused education, empowerment, and activism.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY AUDREY KELLY
That’s certainly the principle guiding Mei Yook Woo, a Seattle native who started a website called The Foodways Project, which she hopes will help connect consumers and diners with the people behind the plate: farmers, producers, and restaurant owners — and with each other.
She’s doing that through a food map that highlights restaurants owned by people of color, community events like potlucks, and an oral history/videography project that captures personal stories and relays them to the wider world.
Growing up, Mei Yook constantly felt like she “wasn’t Chinese enough.”
The fourth-generation Chinese American says she felt that the Chinese culture continually tried to invalidate her experience. “It was like, ‘If you don’t speak the language, then you’re not Chinese enough. And if you’ve never been to China, how can you know what it means to be Chinese?’”
Feeling caught between these two worlds left her searching, and food became the answer that bridged the gap.
“Chinese food was a really important way that I not only connected with my identity but found a deep sense of pride in it,” Mei Yook says.
But food didn’t always have positive associations for Mei Yook. In high school, she developed an eating disorder that she attributes to an internalized misconception over the ideal female body: white, tall, skinny, and blonde.
“I developed this really deep-seated disdain for my body,” she says. It took her some seven years — and a lot of hard work — to heal.
“By working through that, I realized the root cause of my eating disorder was not anything related to food, but was related to my identity,” Mei Yook says. “That’s where my passion for wanting to connect race and food through a nutrition lens started, and then it blossomed from there.”
Mei Yook went on to study nutrition at Bastyr. Then, as an AmeriCorps member providing nutrition education for two and a half years in Seattle’s south end, she saw firsthand the food insecurities plaguing low-income communities.
“I began to see food as such a powerful tool,” Mei Yook says. “Food is such a connector for so many people, but I saw the disparities within our food system and within our local food community in terms of who has access to nutrition. I began to wonder why those disparities existed and wanted to dive deeper into that.”
Mei Yook then decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington with the goal of “bringing nutrition to the people.” Her own experiences showed her that disparities in nutrition are so often intrinsically tied to factors like race, identity, citizenship status, and income — and yet these aspects were largely ignored in her previous studies. For example, people in low-income communities often have little access to stores selling nutritious food, which statistically tend to congregate in higher-income neighborhoods. People in low-income areas may have little time to cook, anyway, because they’re spread thin working more than one job to stay afloat. Fast food — with its cheap calories — becomes a quick, easy, and readily available fallback.
And yet, the master’s program did not meet Mei Yook’s expectations.
“I thought I would find a program that was supportive of talking about race and food and looking at how we as practitioners are failing our clients by not talking about race and class and gender and citizenship status,” she says. “But no one was equipped in the program to have those conversations.”
Frustration led to feelings of isolation, and The Foodways Project was born as a solution. “I thought that if people in real life wouldn’t engage with me, I could create an online platform for having these conversations.”
In addition to hosting a blog where Mei Yook shares her thoughts and feelings, as well as personal analysis, The Foodways Project has grown to include a library of videos, each centered around a specific person’s food story. “I saw how powerful story was, and I knew there must be other people out there who, like me, had their own stories that needed to be heard. So I wanted to create a space for that.
“I started by just grabbing a camera and connecting with some of the people I knew in the community to hear their stories,” Mei Yook continues. She wanted to learn why people of color decide to go into food as a career — whether as a farmer, chef, restaurant owner, home cook, or otherwise — and what that work means to their identity.
“Our food system is something everyone has to participate in, and we participate in so many different ways,” she says. “I wanted to hear the breadth of experiences.”
The Foodways Project also has the potential to preserve the oral histories of people who might otherwise not have a platform for telling their story to the world. After all, Mei Yook says, communities of color are so rarely written into history books — they’re certainly not the authors of such tomes. The website’s videos allow the subjects to be the authors of their own narratives, giving them a way to preserve stories and traditions of cultural and personal importance.
One of her most recent videos features Tarik Abdullah, chef and co-founder of the new Black and Tan Hall in Hillman City. Abdullah’s new venture is a cooperative, worker-owned restaurant and music venue that borrows its name from the racially-inclusive Black and Tan clubs of the 1920s and ’30s. Like most of the videos on the site, Tarik’s is just under 10 minutes long, but in it, he discusses his family history in the neighborhood, his multicultural approach to cooking and love of spices, and food’s powerful ability to build community.
Another aspect of the project involves gathering people in person; after all, the whole thing started, in part, as a way to stave off feelings of isolation. Mei Yook has hosted Foodways Project–headlined events and potlucks, where people gather to share stories, build community — and eat.
And it’s working: “I’ve had friends secure farmland through the potlucks and build partnerships,” Mei Yook says. “People have even dated through it. Food is matchmaking!” In addition to adding more oral histories to the site, the events aspect is one area she hopes to expand on down the line.
The Foodways Map has grown to become a major aspect of the site and an entry point for many first-time visitors. The map in its original form listed 30 Seattle restaurants owned by people of color and familiar to Mei Yook — ones that she herself had tried and loved. The goal was to drum up business and attention for minority-owned businesses, many of them located outside the “hot” restaurant neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard, that perhaps aren’t the recipient of mainstream media attention: Ethiopian restaurant Adey Abeba, black-owned food truck Jemil’s Big Easy, and Salvadorean Bakery and Restaurant. That first map thrust Foodways Project into the spotlight; reporters from The Stranger and The Seattle Times picked up the story.
“The map is important,” Mei Yook says. “The dollar has a lot of value, so I wanted people to think about how we can move our dollar towards marginalized communities to create more equity and make sure that — especially in a gentrifying city — people get the support they need. People may want to support communities of color, but they need someone to do a little legwork.”
The original map has since morphed into a larger project: an open-sourced map that allows users to add minority-owned restaurants in Seattle and beyond, rather than relying solely on Mei Yook to be a walking restaurant encyclopedia. The new map uses Google technology and offers a neighborhood-by-neighborhood list that ranges from Ballard to Beacon Hill to White Center and beyond.
“We all have to eat,” Mei Yook says. “If we have the capital, going out to eat is a fun thing for people. What I’m trying to do next is engage folks who might not identify as a food-justice advocate. I want to say, ‘Great, you can go to this restaurant. But what else can you think about?’”
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.